Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Adventures In Advertising: The Worst Client, Ever

I hear stories all the time about bad clients:  clients who are abusive, clients who call unnecessary meetings at 4pm on a Friday, clients who won’t buy the work.  But this is a story about a client who went way beyond all bounds.

I was a young account executive and was put on a new account at my agency.  The account was one of the major American watch brands and it was among the first accounts that I handled.  I was about twenty-four years old. I was very excited about the assignment - until I got to know the client.

It turned out that my client, the advertising director, was rough and crude. The first hint that this was going to be a difficult client was about two weeks after we started.  The ad director cursed at me and insulted me because a messenger was delayed (no emails or faxes for documents then).  Virtually every day, for no good reason, I was cursed at, insulted and told I was stupid and that my agency sucked.  It was beyond unpleasant.

I went to my boss, the head of account management, and his advice was to not let it bother me and not to lose my cool. But it turned out that it was not just this particular ad director, the nastiness pervaded the watch company from the top down.

Sometime later, there was a big meeting and the president of the client company disagreed with something the president of my agency said.  Out of the client’s mouth came a torrent of insults and curses the likes of which I never again heard in business.  Truth is, it happened because the president of the agency offered an opinion.  This barrage of insults was basically unprovoked, but it was too long ago for me to remember what or why.

At that point, the agency made a very good decision:  do the best we could and look for another watch account with more genteel people.

In the meantime, there was an upcoming sales meeting at the Dellwood Country Club in Rockland County and I was asked to present the new advertising.  I was about 24 years old and had never done that before.  I was very nervous to present to their sales force.  The presentation was to take place about 4pm.

At one o’clock there was an informal meeting among the agency and client executives to discuss the agency portion of the presentation. The meeting was so informal that those in attendance were just standing around.  I don’t remember what was being discussed, but I offered an opinion. Whatever I said seemed to be agreed upon by others who were in the room. The client president was either angry or surprised that a kid should have an opinion and a good one at that.  What happened next I can still see in my mind, as clearly as if it were yesterday.  To this day, I don’t know what motivated this man, but he was clearly surprised or angry at me. He looked at me and said, “If you are so smart, what is the difference between a chronograph and a chronometer?”  I knew the answer and gave it to him.  (A chronograph is a stopwatch and a chronometer is a very well calibrated, accurate timepiece.)
This obnoxious client was shocked that I knew the answer.  So shocked and excited that he actually went to punch me. I saw him make a fist, cock his arm and let go.  I pulled back and in doing so, I lost my balance and his blow hit me on the shoulder.  I did fall.  I am not sure if he knocked me down or if I fell while ducking his punch.  It was very surreal because I don’t think that anyone knew what to do or say. The agency president and client just kept on talking as if nothing had happened.  I was just lying on the floor. No kidding.  I was lying on the floor and they proceeded as if nothing had happened.

So I got myself up, walked out of the room and went home, which was about 25 minutes away in Westchester.

When I got home the phone was ringing.  It was the agency president.  He told me either to get back and make the presentation or I would be fired.  I actually told him that I would only come back if the client apologized when I returned.

The client half-heartedly apologized. I made the presentation.  I also resigned.

So when I hear stories about rough clients, I also smile to myself knowing what a truly bad client is all about.


  1. Thanks for sharing that story, Paul. It reminds me of many past clients, both good and bad. It also reminds me that my most valuable lessons in the business were learned at the AE level, not as a member of agency management.

  2. Great story Paul. I have never actually been hit by a client. Verbally abused, yes. Hit, no. This story cannot top yours and is not really about a bad client, but about bad client behavior. Many years ago as an Account Supervisor I was working at an agency with multiple floors for account management, creative and media. During the course of an average day I was on all three floors multiple times. Well, my client decided he couldn't reach me when he wanted, as there were no cell phones at that point in time. So he called my boss and told him he wanted me to wear a beeper. If I wasn't at my desk, he'd beep me and I would know to call him back immediately.
    The system worked well until one day while I was in the restroom and the beeper went off. As soon as I finished and got back to my desk, I returned his call. He started yelling about the fact that I was wearing a beeper so that I would know when he called and he expected a f---ing call back IMMEDIATELY! I had kinda had enough and said as calmly as I could, "I was on the f---ing toilet," and hung up on him. Figured I better start looking for a new job. However, within about 2 minutes, he called back and very quietly told me he thought he was out of line and was sorry. And life went on from there.

  3. Sounds like the family that ran Fedders in the early 80's.

  4. inmy day, the impossible clients could be counted on one hand. Revson of Revlon, Rosenthal of Schenley,"an unknown name to me today" of Mcgregor sportswear, "The Dame of Shame" at Helmsley,The head of "I think", American Tobacco,
    John LaPorte of Whitehall drugs, that is enough bringing back bad memories.

  5. I was the guy who always was given the toughest clients. One (who shall remain nameless) terrorized his staff, but for some reason was exceptionally gentle with me. So much so that his staff would come to me for guidance in trying to satisfy his requests. His rants were unrelenting - and, unfortunately, one of his top people had a heart attack right before one of their annual meetings. No doubt the pressure he was putting on his people had something to do with that. He was brilliant, but terrible.

  6. Jonathan, interesting, I became the guy who was given the assignments to handle difficult clients, probably because I learned from this experience. I once had another client who used to pick on his sales people at sales meetings and did so until they actually cried, which was his intent. But he was always good with me.

  7. As the old Hebrew expression goes ... "A fish stinks from the head."

  8. Of course, sometimes a bad client has a silver lining. I got a call once from a friend (the CEO of a company) asking if I'd meet with their CFO and the marketing group. Norman Siegel was freelancing for me at the time and I said, "Hey, Norm. C'mon. Wanna pick up a few bucks freelancing on your freelancing job?"

    We go over and take the meeting. I get everyone smiling and nodding except for the CMO. Obviously, this is turf wars and she's wondering who the hell these creatives are pitching her boss--after all, creative was her bailiwick. After about an hour or so, I ask for the order and the CFO says, "How much are we talking about?" I tell him, "$30,000." And for the first time in the meeting, the CMO speaks up (in the most hostile voice), asking, "For what?" I tell her at least three concepts and then the finished ads for the campaign they choose. She replies, "Well I had an ad agency in here last week who showed me three campaigns for nothing." At which point Norman says, "I sure hope you got your money's worth," gets up and walks out of the meeting. And as he's walking out the door I think to myself, "I think I want to be in business with that guy." And we've been business partners for 26 years from our handshake on the sidewalk after that meeting.

  9. Yikes. Here's a funny story from my dad. Back in the 60s he was an agency account executive (when that was the key person on an account) and reassigned to a current agency client whom I won't name. He walked over to their office in town and introduced himself to the receptionist as the new account exec on the business. She took out an index card and he noticed a column of names running all the way down the left side and continuing halfway down the right. Each name had a line drawn through it, except for the last name. She promptly drew a line through that name and wrote my dad's name under it. He always said he should've known then what to expect. Worst 18 months of his life with this MISERABLE client!

  10. Here's my horrible client story:
    It was right around June 16, 2000 (I remember the date because it was my 1 year wedding anniversary and I had to spend it with this horrible client). I flew to Chicago for a commercial shoot for a new video game two days prior to the shoot. Games. You would think people who worked on games would be a little nice, no? I was an AAE at the time and unfortunately for me, the most senior account person there as my management supervisor had recently given notice. I was set to meet with the clients for dinner and discuss everything that was scheduled for the next few days. Upon arriving at the restaurant to meet up with them, one of the clients (the horrible one) said he wanted to see the location where we would be shooting the commercial. I explained to him that we couldn't go see it as it was a private residence. Well, that was absolutely unacceptable to him and so he demanded I make some calls and take him to see the location. I told him again that we couldn't. It was at that point that he grabbed my arm and pushed me back into a wall and became completely verbally abusive. I was 25 at the time. The next day the director (who was obviously not part of the agency) had words with him. But when I told the higher ups at the agency, they did...absolutely nothing! I left after a couple of months. And a few months after that, the agency closed their doors.

    1. Anon, that is quite a story. There are disappointingly few agencies which stand up to their clients at all. Collecting fees seems to be the driving force behind bad behavior.


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